Narendra modi has become a prisoner of his own politics

Modi sees any retreat as surrender. Sometimes, not surrendering gets you taken hostage.

(Yamraj at India Gate. Illustration by Orijit Sen)

The ten years the Congress was in power, leading the UPA coalition, it used to be quick in making people resign to diffuse any scandal. Yet no resignation seemed to stem the political decline of UPA-2. Au contraire, the government only looked weaker for it. It looked like the government was pleading guilty and asking for forgiveness.

In the Modi-Shah system, firing people is rare. Even rarer is Modi going back on something because he is pressured to do so by the media or opposition. And apologising? Out of the question. 

In 2013-14, a section of the media was after Modi to apologise for the 2002 riots but Modi refused to do it. He would only have looked weaker for it, and liberals wouldn’t have forgiven him either.

Rare retreats

The incidents when Modi has made a retreat are so rare you can count them on your fingertips. There was the first act, amendments he wanted to make to the land acquisition law, which he dropped after Rahul Gandhi said Modi’s was a suit-boot ki sarkar. Since then, Modi hasn’t dropped any law. He enacts them through ordinance or last-minute surprise in parliament, causing a furore. If the public reaction makes the law untenable, he just doesn’t issue rules, putting the law in abeyance. Technically, nobody can say Modi’s gone back on CAA or the farm laws. They’re just not being implemented. 

When a junior minister, MJ Akbar, faced sexual harassment charges from a number of women journalists, the Modi government tried to hold off on sacking Akbar for many days. Eventually they had to do it only because the headlines won’t go away. The Himachal BJP chief was sacked recently on corruption charges, the Uttarakhand chief minister was changed because MLAs threatened revolt. 

Surrender is suicide 

These exceptions only prove the rule. Even as BJP chief ministers get low popularity ratings, they are not changed. Be it ML Khattar in Haryana, Vijay Rupani in Gujarat, Biplab Deb in Tripura — nobody is a liability for Modi and the BJP. Be it Sadhvi Pragya’s statements against Mahatma Gandhi or Devendra Fadnavis’ nephew getting an out of turn vaccination, nobody seems to have to pay a price. The economy may keep sliding but the finance minister won’t be changed. A Covid second wave may wreak havoc on Modi’s image but the health minister won’t be fired. Yogi Adityanath can oversee an incident like Hathras that threatens Modi’s Dalit outreach but he won’t be changed. Any sacking, any change, would be an acknowledgement of error. It would amount to capitulation. 

The Modi playbook doesn’t allow for capitulation. That makes him look weak. Not retreating makes him look strong. It makes people say, ‘Look how powerful he is, he gets away with so much’. He gets away with demonetisation and a poor implementation of GST, he gets away with unemployment and with hiding away an unemployment report, he gets away with rising fuel prices and with migrant labour dying while walking back home, thousands of kilometres. He gets away because he makes sure he doesn’t buckle under pressure and  finds a scapegoat. He doesn’t stand before reporters to offer a poor explanation. He just moves on to the next jazzy slogan. 

Sometimes you need to surrender 

Yet, Modi has now become a prisoner of his own politics. The idea that one must never come across as surrendering, is behind the crisis he finds himself in with the second wave of Covid. 

As the media and opposition demanded Modi to suspend rallies in West Bengal, he just wouldn’t do it. When people are worrying about Covid spreading through rally crowds, he was praising the size of the crowds. The least he could have done was to not extol the size of the crowd, but then he does it in every rally. In every election rally Modi says this is the biggest crowd ever, like Apple describes every new iPhone as the best iPhone ever. It’s Modi’s way of creating an election hawa for the BJP, so why should he not do it just because a few liberals are screaming about Covid? 

The SARS-COv-2 pathogen is not as predictable as our politicians. The cases and deaths started rising so fast, like a street dog who comes charging at you slyly and bites you from behind. Modi was sure the dog won’t bite because 1.6 lakh deaths wasn’t considered a dog bite. It was considered an achievement.

Modi needed to cut his losses, cancel his rallies for the fifth phase of the West Bengal election. But doing what critics want him to do would be conceding, retreating, capitulating, surrendering. And surrender is suicide. Doesn’t go with the logic of power. 

Yet Modi had to surrender anyway, because power ultimately needs the legitimacy of public opinion.

It was the same with the Kumbh in Haridwar, it was the same with opening up vaccination for 18+ people. The mutant forms of the virus have also upended Modi’s standard playbook. 

This time it’s different

Modi continues to make this mistake with the Central Vista redevelopment. It is clear that the making of a new capital for Modi’s vanity is not going to look good as Covid ravages India for many months ahead. But Modi’s script says he can’t let his critics have their way. It’s bad enough that Rahul Gandhi gets to say Modi is following his advice on Covid. If Modi retreats now on Central Vista, who will think of him as all-powerful? And if Modi doesn’t appear all powerful, how will we say there is nobody to replace him? How will anyone say ‘Aayega to Modi hi’? How will the leader appear invincible, inevitable? 

Yet this time, Modi is over-estimating his playbook. It’s not a lynching or a riot. It’s not one man lynched or even 1,000. This time it’s much, much bigger. And a new house for the prime minister, a new parliament to show off, a new row of government offices is not going to make Modi look powerful. It won’t have the legitimacy of public opinion. If we are still having elections, that will matter.

On getting elections right and getting them wrong


Pro-BJP trolls on Twitter keep saying I’ve got no election right. Ever. 

The accusation is made repeatedly to delegitimise my reporting and views on elections. So here are some elections I’ve got right: 

Uttar Pradesh assembly election 2007: “The BSP is hoping not just to form a coalition government but one that lasts five years.” 

Bihar assembly election 2015: “Based on recent travels in Bihar, here is this writer’s admittedly subjective view of why the Grand Alliance’s prospects look better than the NDA’s in Bihar.”

Karnataka assembly elections 2018: “Perhaps there is a hawa — the hawa of a hung assembly. The perception that a hung assembly is likely might just result in one.” 

Gujarat assembly election 2017: Anger against the BJP will not turn into a victory for the Congress. 

Telangana assembly election 2018: “There are two reasons why the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) could overcome the arithmetic advantage of the opposition.”

In the Uttar Pradesh assembly election in 2017, I did a deep dive into Kasganj, the state’s bellwether constituency, and clearly found the BJP was likely to win the bellwether seat.

Despite what bellwether Kasganj said, I wrote like many others there was no wave in UP and I stand by it. There was instead an undercurrent for the BJP, because a wave screams at you. But I did write on 22 Feb 2017: “The lotus could be blooming.”

Most recently, I stuck my neck out on 7 December 2018 to say the BJP was not going to win a single state on 11 December – not even Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh – and I did so even before the exit polls were out.

Only fools try to predict elections and one inevitably falls into the trap. There are very few people, if any, who get all elections right. Politicians and parties themselves get their assessments wrong. So-called scientific opinion and exit polls often get them wrong. And so do I. Most embarrassingly, I felt Mayawati would prevent the BJP from doing too well in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. That is what happens when you don’t travel and don’t talk to voters and theorise from Delhi.

One of my greatest regrets is to not have travelled in the 2014 elections. I was instead sitting on the desk and working my ass off to help a brand new website establish itself.  One of the reporters of this new site felt the BJP would win only 9 seats in Bihar, something that trolls wrongly attribute to me. I am also wrongly given the flak for another reporter who travelled by train from Assam to Kashmir and couldn’t see the Modi wave anywhere!

About the important Phulpur Lok Sabha by-poll in 2018, I wrote the BJP could win. I got it wrong because I didn’t speak to too many upper caste voters, presuming they will vote for the BJP anyway. As it turned out, they didn’t turn out to vote! Nevertheless, here’s the key thing I got right in Phulpur: the BSP’s Dalit voters were happy to vote for the SP.

The BJP and its organised troll armies make your life hell if you suggest the BJP is losing and it wins instead. I know journalists who maintain the default position “BJP is winning” only because they fear the consequences of saying “BJP is losing” when the BJP does win. There is at least one journalist who lost a job under BJP pressure only because she got an election wrong in this manner. Is it really a big deal to express one’s sense of an election to find out one was wrong?

Such is the fear of saying “BJP is losing” and getting it wrong that one news channels had dropped its Bihar 2015 exit poll because the numbers for the BJP looked too bad. That was the only exit poll that turned out to be right! I’m told the BJP’s organised troll armies have folders on liberal journos so whenever a liberal journo says anything against BJP/RSS/Hindutva, the folder is opened and the key words come out. Among them is “you never get an election right”. 

It’s okay to get elections wrong because it’s a pretty damn tough thing to get them right, for many reasons. One reason people don’t appreciate enough that public mood can and does change over the course of the campaign, from phase to phase. Many top editors, especially in news channels, have an easier time getting elections right because they have access to exit poll data collected during phases. The putting out of such data is prohibited by the Election Commission before the last phase.

It is not the reporter’s job to predict elections but it is the media’s job to gauge and reflect public mood around an election. This is incredibly important for democracy for many reasons. It’s important to know why people are voting the way they are. If, for instance, there’s a controversy about elections being rigged, you will need the media’s documented sense of the election as a reference point.

Politicians and their birthdays

I think very highly of Jawahar Lal, but there’s something megalomaniac about politicians and their birthdays…

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(Click on the images to enlarge.)

Which is not to say Nehru’s investment in children was insincere or cyncila like Modi’s communication strategies…

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A prime minister celebrating his birthday as children’s day is for me, a lot less problematic than a president celebrating his birthday as Teacher’s day.